Last night at 12:01 a.m., more than 200,000 people all over the globe booted up their computers and typed the first of 50,000 words of their novels into a blank document.
After 10 long months of waiting, it is finally November, and National Novel Writing Month has begun.
Known as NaNo by its participants around the globe, National Novel Writing Month is a 30-day competition that takes place throughout the month of the November. Participants, self-titled “WriMos,” have one month to write a 50,000-word novel, roughly 175 pages, and must submit it to NaNo’s website by midnight on Nov. 30.
National Novel Writing Month started as a small challenge in the Bay Area of California in July 1999. Austin regional staff Emily Bristow said founder Chris Baty and his friends had always told themselves they would write a novel one day. However, because of work, life and grueling self-criticism — called the internal editor — they had never quite realized that dream. In the summer of 1999, Baty and his friends decided that they would write that novel they’d been putting off. They gave themselves one month to write the novel and set the goal at 50,000 words. On Aug. 1, 1999, one month after the start of their challenge, Baty and his friends reached their goal.
Their stories were unedited and unplanned, but they were finished. Furthermore, they had achieved this without the traditional novel-writing method of isolation and careful thought.
Instead, their process consisted of get-togethers, food, talking, indulging in hideous amounts of caffeine and simple, unabridged writing.
“When you learn to read, it [seems] every step of the way you’re being corrected, you’re being constantly judged,” Bristow said. “You learn the order of the alphabet, you learn how to put a sentence together, and you learn the rules of grammar and syntax. With NaNo, nobody’s judging you.”
In one month, Baty and his friends had developed a quick way of realizing the seemingly impossible dream of writing a novel. They had made two key revelations in their experiment. One, that deadlines gave people motivation to do things they wouldn’t otherwise attempt, and two, that writing for quantity instead of quality set off a rush of creativity and defeated the tormenting self-judging process that prevents most people from writing their novels.
Now in its eleventh year, NaNo is an active competition in more than 90 countries with more than 500 regional volunteers. NaNo is a nonprofit organization and runs on funds from its participants. While the competition runs on freedom of expression, there are a few rules: One, don’t edit. Editing eats up too much time and can sometimes discourage writers from completing their novel. Leave the editing for December after NaNo has ended and the winners have been announced. Two, the novel has to be 100-percent fiction, as non-fiction requires more time and accuracy.
As an 11-time NaNo winner, Bristow keeps the challenge close to her heart. She participated in the first contest in 1999 and has participated in every contest since. She became a municipal liaison for Austin NaNo in 2004, motivated by the opportunity to meet and encourage other writers. Bristow organizes “write-ins” all over Austin, events where NaNo participants get together to eat, write and talk about their novels.
“It’s really hard for people to make NaNo work at this time of year because of Thanksgiving,” Bristow said. “They have to find the time and overcome the challenges of working with their characters and their plots. One of the good reasons to go to the write-ins is because you have people going through the same thing you are, you have a support group.”
Furthermore, NaNo also strives to make writing a social event, working to dispel the practice of writing in isolation. Four-time NaNo participant and history senior Ivy Crawford-Junker claims to have met some of her best friends in NaNo after transferring to Texas State University in 2005. On a whim, she decided to take on the NaNo competition. Participating in NaNo helped her make friends and adjust to life in Austin. Despite her any achievement in the social aspects of NaNo, Crawford-Junker has never won a NaNo competition. She blames her loss on midterms and NaNo’s 100-percent fiction policy.
“NaNo always starts after midterms and I always have [school] papers to write. Plus, as a history major, I’m much better at writing about things that actually happened instead of things that didn’t,” Crawford-Junker said. “I don’t essentially feel bad about not winning. The only [consequence] is being heckled by your best friend, forever.”
Out of the 167,150 participants that competed last year, only 32,178 reached their 50,000 words by Nov. 30. The winners receive a certificate from the website, a prize that is weighted in gold.
“It’s amazing when you win,” Bristow said. “The feeling of accomplishment is one you can’t compare to anything else. You’ve done this thing that’s been really hard, you’ve made time, you’ve not slept, you’ve not done your laundry, and now you did it!”
After the contest is over, most NaNo participants do not go for publication. Bristow said that most people write only for themselves to prove that they can do it, although some do strive to go public after the event. More than 60 novels have been published since NaNo’s inception. At times, professional writers have been known to take on the NaNo to start their next projects.
The Austin region is one of the largest and most active in NaNo, ranking 14th worldwide based on its number of participants alone. The region had 500 participants last year; this year they have more than 1,000.
Among those participants is engineering sophomore Anny Pan, one of eight participants on campus. For Pan, NaNo provides the opportunity to write the novel she always dreamed of writing. Pan plans to work on schedule, writing the suggested 1,667 words per day to reach the Nov. 30 deadline. To complete the task, Pan has done away with all distractions. She told her best friend to change her Facebook password and banned herself from Hulu.
“I’m an engineer, not a writer at all,” Pan said. “But I want to write something that I enjoyed reading in middle school and high school.
And while the word count may be daunting, the WriMos are up to the challenge.
“Just do it. Don’t be afraid of losing, and try to make some friends while you’re at it,” Crawford-Junker said. “It’s like playing the lottery, if you buy a ticket, something good may happen.”